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This Man Saved the Stories of Formerly Enslaved People
You might have heard that Harriet Tubman helped lead thousands of enslaved people to their freedom with the Underground Railroad – but have you ever heard their stories? William Still, youngest son of two people who escaped to their own freedom, and we read his story in the book William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad by Don Tate.
William went to school and learned to read and write, and eventually became the manager of a local newspaper. When he realized that Philadelphia was a stop on the Underground Railroad, he used his experience in journalism to write down the stories of the people who passed through.
These records did more than just tell their stories, they also helped reconnect family members who had escaped at different times. He was even able to recognize his older brother who had been lost decades before when he parents escaped to freedom.
So many themes in this book: the power of education, the value of the record-keeping as evidence of the existence of human enslavement, and the biggest one for me – perspective. Learning about enslavement from the perspective of the enslaved people is powerful.
Education Inspires Empathy
I am a firm believer that education inspires empathy. Learning about the experiences of enslaved people with simple language early in life has taught my kids to be aware and compassionate. I also believe that making these conversations normal is a small form of social activism. In our home we speak openly about America’s history of enslavement, segregation, and systemic racism. My children do not come away from these discussions feeling bad or guilty about their own skin color; rather, they are able to understand why little white boys declaring Black Lives Matter is still an uncommon thing to do. It is because we read these stories and they are aware of their country’s history that they are able to have the empathy to impact change.
William Still’s home became a stop in the Underground Railroad. We had learned a little about the Underground Railroad when we read Before She Was Harriet, but William Still’s story helped my sons understand it better.
We talked about how William Still recognized that every person on the Underground Railroad had a story. Each was seeking freedom, and they would not have been risking their lives if it was not important.
When they get older, they will learn about Mildred Rutherford and the Lost Cause propaganda. For now, I believe it is most important to continue to show them story after story of Black Americans from that time period so that when they learn about Mildred Rutherford they will understand why her version of history is not accurate.
Both my 8-year-old and 5-year-old enjoyed this book. My older one was able to understand the context a bit more, but my 5-year-old did remember the Underground Railroad and was able to understand where this book fit in history.